Friday, November 21, 2014

Paradise Found and Lost

If Heaven is full of Mormons, I think I’d like to go to Hell.

One of the last things my little brother asked me before he killed himself was why I was still active in the church that he had grown to hate so much. I told him that I believed that no one was perfect, but that the gospel they were trying to live was. Mormons had a lot to learn, but they were generally good people making an effort to be better people. At the time, it seemed to be the most sincere and thoughtful answer I could offer up to someone who had been scarred by judgment and maltreatment at the hands of Mormons, myself included. Having at last learned that to love one another is the greater law, I hoped that my words carried some weight, conveying the message that the self-righteous could change.

That was almost six years ago, and my brother is long dead by his own hand. In the years that followed his suicide, I watched my own faith wash away in the rain of despair, until I felt as though I was standing on a single block of stone, a belief in God the only remnant of a once firm foundation. Family discord, grief, anxiety, and frustration with a Mormon congregation that had seemed to move on without me and my unanswered questions drove me further and further away from happy Sundays at church. I found myself sobbing at the first notes of hopeful hymns, avoiding those who had once been good friends, and seeking escape from my parents and siblings.

So we moved to Utah, a drastic measure that will have demonstrated to anyone who truly knew me just how far down into the depths of despair I had sunk, and just how desperate I was to surface.

We chose a valley town at high altitude, a happy oasis surrounded by mountains, blessed by sunshine, and jam packed with Mormons. In our valley, horses run in open fields, every sunset lights the sky with fire, and a slight breeze from the canyon above stirs up sweet smells year round. Snow falls as ski-perfect powder, thunderstorms spark their way across the valley, and mosquitoes appear to have been outlawed. There are no stop lights in our town, you won’t get into trouble for riding in the back of a pickup, and the occasional traffic backup is due only to the yearly rodeo or loose cattle in the road. It is, when measured by all standards of beauty, a true paradise.

Our first two years here were blissful. For the first time in my life, I felt at home, and believed that I would never again feel the need to move. Our kids, although missing their friends back east, adapted by making new friends, getting involved, and benefiting from parents that were happy once again. Their social calendars were as full as they wished them to be, while Elizabeth and I were content to remain casual in our new friendships. It was enough for us to be happy, spending time together that didn’t revolve around grief and misery.

Not knowing any of our neighbor’s personal histories afforded us the freedom to love them without conditions. We didn’t need to know any more than whatever people were willing to tell us, and since many of them lived on the same street as their parents, siblings, cousins, and childhood friends, they didn’t feel the need to tell us much at all. We were fine with that; it freed us from pre-conceived notions and meant that we could be engaged without the baggage of the past weighing down our relationships.

Church became new and interesting again, and I felt a faith in the good influence that religion can wield in a person’s life begin to once again take foothold in my own. These were good people, with happy children and strong ties to common beliefs and family. They were small town, but they were by no means backwards and ignorant.  To me they seemed to be cut from the fringes of Utah Mormon cloth rather than the center, and I didn’t feel pressure to conform to a standard. I knew that we were something of a novelty, being from the East Coast as we were, and I rather enjoyed my life as a New Hampshire Yankee in Brigham Young’s court.

We threw ourselves into valley life. We enjoyed the yearly Independence Day rodeo, made sure we got tickets to the demolition derby, and I even pulled out my grandfather’s shotgun and fired it for the first time. We spent time in the local burger joint, took part in service projects, and for the first time in my life, I cheered for a high school football team. I stopped short of donning Wranglers and a cowboy hat, and none of my radio presets were changed to country music stations, but I did go horseback riding when invited, and even considered learning to hunt. The ultimate small town honor came when I was asked to serve as an emcee along the 4th of July parade route. It took a few minutes for the street-lining crowd to warm up to my East Coast act, but I must have done something right, because I was asked back the following summer.

Along the way, l wrote a book about Jared losing his life just as I had found mine. Many valley residents took the time to reach out and let me know just how powerful the book had been for them. It had changed their way of thinking, loving, and living, and it had given them hope for their own families. It was important for me to hear that they loved my writing, but much more valuable to me was the sharing of their secret struggles, crushing fears, and troubling doubts. I hadn’t written the book to make money, but to change and perhaps even save lives, even just one. To hear their stories helped me to make something good and beautiful spring out of Jared’s life and death.

Life wasn’t without its speed bumps and disappointments, but it was good.

And then Caleb left for university. The day your first child leaves home to live their own life is bittersweet; you are excited and even envious to know that so many adventures and character-building challenges await them, but at the same time you are sad to know that your life has forever changed, and that you will spend the rest of your days missing them and trying to convince them to visit you. On that night, you shouldn’t be stirred from restless slumber by your youngest child, who has been frightened by shadowy figures lurking in your front yard at two o’clock in the morning.

But I was. I chased the culprits across our freshly toilet-papered yard to their car, managing to get a grip on one of them for just a moment before he slammed the door and they sped away. They came back the next night, and the night after that. It was funny (sort of) the first time; it was summer, and so I figured that mindless teenagers were just out doing what mindless teenagers do when they don’t have to get up in the morning to work for a living, go to school, or report to a probation officer. I thought they would move on to another neighborhood, another house, another town. But they didn’t. They came back the next week, or at least someone did. They doorbell ditched us, papered our trees, and drove past our house, honking their horns and shouting at us. They began calling our daughter’s cell phone over and over again, blocking their numbers and threatening to return and make our world white.

It wasn’t funny anymore.

I called the sheriff and reported the license plate that I had memorized from that first encounter. A deputy was sent to the owner’s house, but the parents told him that their son was away at college and they had been out of town that past week, so there was no way he or their Dodge Durango had been involved. I later confirmed that to be a lie, and while I understood their need to keep their mischievous child from having a permanent record, I wondered about their need to teach their son about accountability.

These unwanted visits went on for weeks, although once school started they took to giving us a break on weeknights. But our weekends were no longer restful; we felt like captives in our own home, dreading nightfall and the mayhem that would ensue along with it. We would sit and watch movies with the windows open, hoping to hear them out in the yard so that we could yell at them before they had a chance to fill the trees with paper or hammer on our windows and doors with their fists. Elizabeth would sometimes even wait for them by the front door, and she managed to more than once throw it open and startle a masked and hooded teenager as he approached our door. On a few occasions they were brazen enough to coat our trees in paper and make their honking drive-byes during the early evening hours before the sun had set. They must have felt invincible, knowing that there was little we could do to stop them.

As parents of a feisty teenage daughter, it did occur to us that Hannah might have offended someone, perhaps a former girlfriend that now held some sort of vendetta against her for a teenage disagreement or betrayal. We wondered what she could have done, however, that would warrant such a sustained barrage of abuse. We questioned her at length, which flooded out home with teenage tension. At fifteen, she already thought we were restrictive and untrusting, and our interrogations only seemed to confirm our lack of faith in her. She remained adamant that she had done nothing to merit such treatment, and we did our best to believe her.

One night I spied yet another shadowy hoard of small-town thugs in our backyard, except this time they were lurking near Hannah’s window. The thought that her blinds were more than likely open and that they had been watching her sent me into an adrenaline rage. I sprinted from the front door, and they made their escape. I gave chase, and nearly caught the fattest of the despicable herd as we rounded a corner north of our house. I followed them through the neighborhood and out to the state road that runs through town. I ran after them until they cut into a field and disappeared.

“I just want to know why,” I tried to shout through the wheezing of my lungs. Their laughter mocked me as they escaped.

After calling the sheriff’s dispatch line and huffing my way through a demand for action, I called Elizabeth, and between gasps for air asked for her to come and pick me up in the car. She was sure that I was having a heart attack, and worried over me until I calmed down enough to rant without gasping for breath.

The deputy that finally showed up that night told me the same thing law enforcement had told me every other time I had called and asked that they assist me in putting an end to out torment. I had to catch the culprits in the act, but I could do nothing to hurt them, or the liability would rest on my head, in spite of the fact that they were trespassing on my property. Just what they meant by “catch them” wasn’t made clear, and I wondered if I would have to actually tackle one of them and sit on his chest until help arrived.

By this point I had a good idea that some of the boys in our church congregation, boys that I had spent the past two years teaching on Sunday mornings, were involved. I made my suspicions known during an ongoing group text sent out to the young men about a youth activity at the church. My accusations were met with anger and denial, followed by an admission of guilt, conflicting stories, and a suggestion that my family needed to “relax.” I was also admonished by church leadership to hold such discussions in private, away from group texts pertaining to church youth activities. One of the accused (guilty) boys did at last call me personally, and although his story changed a few times throughout our conversation, he did say that he would stop, and that he would tell others to stay away from our home as well. I showed good faith and took him at his word, having little other recourse short of getting myself into trouble with the law for thumping him as soundly as I wanted to.

We decided to ignore any future property invasions, in the hopes that they would get bored with us and stop for good. In an attempt at humor, I bought a pile of dollar store toilet paper, set it up on a folding table out front, and posted a sign that read, “YOU WIN!” The paper disappeared that night, but it wasn’t used on our house. We hoped this was a sign that things would be calm moving forward.

In the meantime, Hannah declared her independence from both school and church. The family conversations that followed are private, but it is enough to say I wished for enough superhuman strength to lift the proverbial car off of her troubled body and save her life. We enrolled her in an online school, something that I had never before seen as an option for my kids, or as something my socially active daughter would ever consider.

It was soon after Hannah started her online classes that Caleb revealed to me that while at a Mormon missionary’s farewell party, he had heard a young man refer to his little sister as a slut. Caleb, a calm and well composed young man, trembled with rage as he told me the story. He expressed deep regret at his inaction at that moment. He had wanted to leap on the young man like an angry spider monkey, tearing the flesh from his face, but hadn’t, and it gnawed on his conscience.

Since that moment, I have found myself asking the same question Jared asked of me.

Why do I stay?

The next time the hooded figures came calling, I was ready. As they made to escape in two cars parked up the street, I gave chase in my wife’s car, following the last one to leave our street. We played cat and mouse for an hour; they would stop and try to wait me out, or fake right but turn left, thinking that they could trick me and get away. I laughed as they made every attempt to lose me. They didn’t know that I was well into the third season of “The Rockford Files” on Netflix, and after watching James Garner drive that copper-mist Firebird like Steve McQueen’s protégé, there was no way they were going to lose me. I didn’t have my phone with me, and as I followed our tormenters I could only imagine what Elizabeth must have been thinking back home.

Kids are generally stupid, and this bunch was no different. They eventually returned to our neighborhood and pulled into a dead end. I parked with my high beams aimed at their windshield, and when they tried to pass me I blocked their every attempt to flee past me. After several minutes, a young man summoned his courage and exited their car, walking over to my window. He trembled as he asked what I wanted.

“What do I want? I want you to stop harassing my family! I want you to stay off my property! I want you to tell me why!” I raged.

I then read him the riot act at high volume for twenty minutes, extracted from him a list of the kids involved, and threatened any legal action possible under the law. Another boy had found his stones and joined the one-sided conversation halfway through it. He too trembled as he learned that an angry father is a force to be reckoned with. They both confessed to following the lead of other kids, specifically two girls who allegedly hated Hannah, and to being dumb teenagers who had nothing else to do and no sense. (Their words, not mine.) I asked them if they thought they were good Mormon kids, and if they even listened to a damn thing on Sunday mornings about loving one another.

That seemed to cut them pretty deep.

I let them go and went home, adrenaline coursing through my veins. Worried that I had chased the kids off the road and was feasting on their mangled corpses, Elizabeth had called the sheriffs, and they had sent a patrol car to find me before I took drastic measures. The deputy sheriff turned up at our house a few minutes after I returned, and he informed us that he had pulled over a car with expired tags leaving our neighborhood, and found it to be filled with terrified teenagers. He had taken their names, and to that list he added the names that I had collected. I was given a case number and told to call should I wish to pursue matters any further.

Elizabeth knows far more people in the valley than I do, and some of the names I had collected shocked her. Knowing their parents as she did, she couldn’t believe that they would be involved in something so malicious. Some of them had been in our home, invited over by Hannah for movie nights and birthday parties. It cast a dark light on our view of this happy valley, to find out that so many kids from so many good Mormon families were the cause of our miserable and sleepless weekends. We decided against calling their parents, believing that word of my threats and the warnings of the deputy sheriff would spread throughout the school, bringing an end to the madness. We just wanted it to end.

I had mentioned the situation to a limited number of locals, and the looks and responses I got were anything but empathetic. A distinct sense that they believed me to be over-reacting forced me to shut down any further discussion on the matter. I took my frustration to bed with me each night, and passed many nights in restless sleep. Unhappiness is tiring to the extreme, especially when your dreams of happiness become a waking nightmare. I was exhausted, and so was my family.

Fathers embarrass their teenage children; this is a fact of life that you can’t understand and accept until you grow up and become a father of teenagers. By this time Hannah had passed from embarrassed to mortified, to hear of my running and chasing and threatening, but I felt that there was nothing else I could do. I hoped that she could somehow understand that as her father I would do whatever I could to protect our family, not only from physical threats, but emotional and spiritual menaces as well. Since our family was often exhausted from lack of sleep over the weekends, our Mondays and Tuesdays were tense, and we found ourselves at odds with each other, bickering and slamming doors, pushing each other well past our limits of tolerance.

If the harassment continued, something would had to be done, but I was frustrated and felt mired in failure; if I couldn’t provide a happy life for my family, just how successful could I count myself as a husband and father? Feeling powerless, I began looking at job boards in Arizona, New Mexico, and even California. I had been bullied as a child, and I didn’t want a bunch of teenagers to chase me away from my home as an adult, but to hell with them, I would do what it took to find happiness. Once we left, they could say whatever they damn well pleased, and I wouldn’t care about them one jot or tittle, nor would I give them a further thought.

There were of course, examples, people, and reasons to stay. We had made some dear friends in the valley, and although I thought that they might support us in our efforts to put an end to the late night raids, I didn’t want to drag them into it, nor did I want to risk finding out that they too felt I was overreacting. Elizabeth’s family was another reason to remain, due to the positive experience it had been to live near a warm and loving family. Time spent with cousins, nieces, nephews, siblings, and newborn babies had resulted in good relationships and lasting memories. I even enjoyed our limited time spent with my in-laws, which was a milestone very much worthy of being on the list of reasons to stay.

I wanted to fight, but had very little fight left in me.

We had one weekend of peace after the car chase. We did our best to ignore the onslaught, but it was hard to ignore. I began to wonder when they would begin throwing eggs, tagging our house with paint, and leaving lasting damage to our property. They had already trampled some of Elizabeth’s plants and flowers, and the summer rain had pulped the toilet paper into clumps that hung from high branches and littered our lawn. I stopped bothering to clean it up, because any that I picked up was always replaced with more. At the beginning of summer I had loved pulling into the driveway and looking at the beautiful gardening and grooming that Elizabeth had put so much time and effort into. By the end of the season, I had long tired of pulling up to see the scattered white mess and trampled plants.

Every car that passed in the night was full of assailants, and every noise in the wind a warning sign that we were about to get hit. The kids would stand in the dark living room and watch through the windows, while Elizabeth and I would stop and listen at every sound. I took to spending my Friday and Saturday nights in the upstairs den with the windows open and the sound muted as I played video games for hours past midnight, knowing that I couldn’t have slept had I tried, and hoping to deter the roving gangs from approaching through the dark. We got used to hearing the doorbell at two in the morning, waking to a mess in the yard, and hearing the honking of horns and the slow rumble of vehicles passing our house at a crawl. We worried about leaving the kids alone, for fear that the one night that we did would be the night the attackers would decide to escalate their assaults.

I stopped attending church youth activities in spite of being assigned to do just that. I couldn’t bear the sight of boys that I knew had been involved. Our family found began to find reasons for staying away from church on Sundays as well, and spent time together instead. I knew that the kids might grow accustomed to skipping church, but I had no desire to be there either, so what did it matter? Every week we skipped became easier, and I became more adept at pushing the guilt away with thoughts of teenagers running through the dark at night, then smiling their way through their Sunday morning classes and duties while adults who believed me to be overreacting sat nearby, full of The Spirit.

November came; months since Caleb left home and the start of our sleepless nights had passed. Elizabeth and I were sitting on our bed one Saturday night, the back door to our bedroom open to let in the crisp air of a moonlit night. Before dark I had stretched fishing line at chest and waist height between the trees in our yard in the hope that it would send a kid or two sprawling as they ran through our yard. I didn’t want to slice off any heads, but I did want to send a message.

“Did you hear something?” Elizabeth asked.

As part of what had become our routine, I paused what we were watching and stood to look outside. Sure enough, a pack of shadows ran from the backyard, hooting and hollering at me as they did. I ran to the garage in my boxers and tee shirt, jumped in the car and sped off into the night to give chase. After a loop around the neighborhood, I sped out to the state road and headed north. I saw them up ahead, and as I neared them they jumped a fence and ran off into a grove of trees. I continued north and saw what had to be their vehicles parked across from the local cemetery. I called the sheriff’s dispatch number and informed them that I was about to go mental on a herd of youth that were guilty of repeatedly harassing my home and family, and read off their license plates one by one.

They sent a deputy sheriff right away. As the night (and mayhem) progressed, he managed to pull over a car and speak to its single occupant, a teenage girl. She claimed to have been looking for her brother, whom she admitted had been out with the hooded crowd, but she stated that he had called her for a ride home after feeling uncomfortable with the herd’s activities. The deputy sheriff read her the riot act for her expired plates (What is up with expired plates on teenager’s cars in this valley?) and then waited for her brother to return on foot so that together they could have a chat with their parents. He then came and spoke to us, telling us what he had learned about our troubles and the kids involved. He advised us that we should talk to the parents and try to resolve the matter peacefully.

In the morning I looked out into the backyard and saw our trampoline in pieces on the lawn, and didn’t wonder twice about who had dismantled it. I dressed in a flash and sped over to the church, eager to spend a few minutes with the father of those two kids. By the time I entered the building I was calm, but my hands were damp with the sweat of anxiety. I approached the man and put my hand on his shoulder.

“We need to talk,” I said, a polite but serious tone accompanying the quivers that rippled through my body.

“Yes, yes we do,” he answered.

We chose an empty classroom, and after closing the door, we began to discuss the situation. He related what he knew, and then listened as I explained what our family had been going through, and my understanding that his kids had played a part in it. I was calm, but couldn’t help from trembling as I recounted the past few months and the lasting effects of the experience on my family. Not knowing him well but having no reason to doubt his integrity, I hoped for the best possible reaction. I hoped that he was a good man, a man who would hold his kids accountable, loved his neighbors, and went to church because he wanted to improve who he was, not just out of habit. By the end of our encounter, my hope had moved into cautious faith. We scheduled a meeting in his home that afternoon.

Elizabeth and I spent not quite an hour with that man, his wife, and their two older children. We were able to convey to the kids just how damaging the past few months have been for us, and relate to them the consequences of those late night raids. They were humbled, and tears made their way around the room, followed closely by a box of tissues. I sat with my arms folded and my eyes dry, trying to look as calm and in control as I wanted to be. As I watched the kids and listened to their heartfelt, tear-soaked apologies, I realized that I hadn’t shed a tear in months. This struck me as odd, because since my brother’s death, I had been somewhat of a big baby, crying at the very smallest of emotional moments and memories, happy or sad. I realized that in fact, the last time I had cried was on the very day the torment had started; I had cried as my son had left for university.

This knowledge steeled my resolve, and so I made it clear to them that while we were grateful for their apologies and believed that they had limited involvement in the late night raids, we were determined to end it all for good. If they were willing to help us do that we would be most grateful, and would not pursue matters with the sheriff any further. They promised to do everything in their power, and that with their parent’s help they would spread the word not so much that it had to stop, but more importantly, why.

We left feeling better and more hopeful than we had since summer. We had felt a spirit in that family’s home, a spirit of accountability, trust, and love. Elizabeth and I returned home and enjoyed a peaceful afternoon, with much of it spent napping away our exhaustion.

The following night, after the house was dark and quiet and we were all in bed, the doorbell rang. I looked at Elizabeth and felt the dashing of hope on the rocks of reality. I made my way to the dark front entry and flipped on the outside light as I opened the door.

There stood three teenage boys, each of them looking more humble and forlorn than his fellows.

“We are sorry it is so late, but we didn’t want to wait to come and tell you that we heard what has been happening to your family and we want to tell your family that we are sorry to have been a part of it,” the elected spokesman said.

I didn’t know what to say. I stood in the doorway with my arms folded across my chest, and for a moment I imagined smashing their heads together and slamming the door in their faces. I waited for the punch line, for the eggs to come flying at me, for a bucket of water to come around the corner and soak me.

The joke wasn’t on me, however, and so I called out to Elizabeth. She came and joined me in the doorway. Our kids refused to come out of their rooms, and I remarked that I didn’t blame them. I told the boys that they had helped turn our home into a living hell, and that if they had wanted an adrenaline rush, I would have gladly let them into my garage to box with me. We thanked them for their apologies, and asked them to please do their part and spread the word, then bid them goodnight properly, without chasing them out into the street and into the dark.

This story is far from over. As I write this, we have yet to see the weekend. We are hopeful, but cautiously so; the aftermath of these past few months is apparent in our home. We are struggling to rebuild our children’s love for this valley and its Mormon people, while we try to rebuild our own. Elizabeth and I have made a point of being positive, however, knowing that our attitude has been and will continue to be reflected in our children.

So, Jared…why do I stay…or will I?

The “will I” remains to be seen, but in that man and his wife, I have been blessed with two new examples to support the “why” that I offered to Jared, just days before he took his life.

In fact, if there are but a handful of such examples in Heaven, I’m beginning to think I’d like to go there.

So long as there isn’t any toilet paper.